Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you want to know something about heaven? There’s deep longing to learn something about where you go when you die. And here in our reading from Revelation we catch a glimpse. We are especially interested in knowing about heaven when our own loved ones are there. I’m certain that includes many here today. So, we can look to the Scriptures to find the hints that they give. We find hints in the Transfiguration of our Lord on the holy mountain. We can meditate on the many sayings of his apostles. But, today, we’ll look at this section of the Book of the Revelation. We don’t know where heaven is, but here we have a vivid picture of heaven and those who dwell there. This passage was written to comfort the hearts of the suffering and give them needed hope, as it has given hope to countless throughout the centuries.
Who Are in Heaven?
In our first reading from Revelation, John receives a vision of a crowd of people. As he looks on the innumerable crowd he notices that the crowd is multi-ethnic. This is the biggest multi-cultural gathering of people ever. And this crowd keeps growing and growing. And what kind of venue can hold such a huge multi-cultural gathering? Well, they’re before the throne! They’re in heaven. Heaven certainly isn’t unpopulated. It is the answer given by the Lord to the question his disciples asked him when he was on earth, “Are only a few going be saved?” Jesus might not have saw fit answer it plainly then, but here there can be no question.
A great multitude! Could it really be any other way? Would God have created humanity only to let sin and Satan get the most of them? If that were true, how could our Lord “destroy the works of the devil?” When John saw this vision there was already in heaven this huge, innumerable crowd. How much bigger must it be now? How many do you suppose there will be when the End finally comes?
Well who are they? This ever growing, multi-ethnic crowd in heaven. They are those who have come out of “the great tribulation.” This life is a great tribulation. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil are all against God and his kingdom just as much as any Roman Emperor was. These are the people who have woke up from life as if they were waking up from a nightmare. They have lived through the nightmare and can now wake up to a glorious, fresh new morning. These are all the Saints who have passed on. These are not just those famous saints, but also, all the unsung saints, a countless, nameless crowd. These are the saints who kept the faith and passed it on. They did so through all their daily griefs and trails and they did it with a steadfast and strong hope.
These are not saints because they were such great moral. people. No, they had all sinned. None of them had kept their robes undefiled. Jesus in our Gospel reading says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, that is, “the spiritually poor” the spiritual beggars. But Jesus Christ came “to seek and to save those who were lost” and he found them! By his Spirit, through his Word he drew them to himself. John notices that these saints have identical white robes. White standards for purity. The reason their clothes are white is not because they lived lives of total holiness and purity but because the blood of the lamb, the sacrificial death of Jesus himself, has rescued them. They were baptized, and God’s Word has placed them into God’s favour. By his blood Jesus washed their sin-stained robes, and made them white. As the old hymn goes, “What can wash away my sin, nothing but the blood of Jesus.” You see, we don’t look like saints. We don’t really talk like saints. We don’t really act or think like saints. But that’s not how God sees us. That’s what the Epistle is getting at. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3.2) God has called us blessed. Despite being spiritual beggars, mourning, hungering and thirsting for a righteousness we don’t have, persecuted, reviled, and suffering, despite our poor condition God calls us his children. Saints. You are saints.
So, there’s this enormous crowd. Getting to heaven is not something they did. They have absolutely no need to wait or fear of a lengthy postmortem clean-up period in purgatory. The suffering and death of Jesus, and their baptism into his death, have done all that is required. Salvation belong to God and to the slain Lamb. A saint is someone who, despite their sin, has been baptised into Christ and has been redeemed by his precious blood, and who clings to Christ even unto death. Now, all of those who are in heaven, are full of gratitude for the one who redeemed and saved them with his own blood. Nobody is in heaven for any other reason, nor can any ever be. We all want to one day be where they are. What are you trusting in to get you there?
What are they doing there?
As John looks at the crowd, he notices that they’ve all got palm branches in their hands.. Palm branches should remind you of something else: Palm Sunday. Palm branches were also used in celebrations when a conquering king returned home victorious. When Jesus came on a donkey into Jerusalem, he was hailed as King, the Son of David! Here, this enormous multi-ethnic crowd of saints is celebrating a victory.
And they’re singing a victory song. They sing a song to God and to the Lamb. Even the Angels themselves join in with a heavenly “Glory be to God on High!” Earlier John reported, “I saw a Lamb standing as though it had been slain.” (Rev. 5:6). God himself has become a man and has suffered worse than anyone else, and by his suffering and death victory has been won.
“Around the throne of David, the saints from care released raise loud their songs of triumph to celebrate the feast. They sing to Christ their leader, who conquered in the fight, who won for them forever their gleaming robes of white.” (Jerusalem the Golden, LSB 672, Stanza 3).
So what do the saints do in heaven? They celebrate. The sing the songs of victory. They remember what God has done for them. They are part of the most amazing Divine Service that ever shall be.
They are Under God’s Care
Palm branches were also used in the ancient Feast of Tabernacles. It commemorated God’s care for the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness, and afterwards God’s continual care of them every day. One main features of the feast was carrying palm branches (cf. Neh. 8:14–17). That is part of the imagery which John is using here. Life is like being in a wilderness. The troubles of the wilderness are over, Now, the Church has entered the true promised-land.
We have to travel through the wilderness of life, but if we trust in Jesus our Lord, we will then find ourselves in God’s throne room, in the heavenly temple, worshiping in the ultimate Divine Service. The saints in heaven do not want for anything. They are under the care of God. They no longer are plagued with hunger or thirst. They don’t get worn out because of the stress of this life.
The saints in heaven, no longer have any tears. One poet used to say he could never read this without tears. Think of it, dear brothers and sisters. Think of what life is now—a place of tears—and think that we are promised a place where tears will be no more. The only tears you’ll have in heaven are tears of joy. But there is one more unspeakable joy that come this text tells of about Heaven. We have the very presence and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. He will dwell among us himself. Those who have died in the faith have this blessing: Jesus Christ shall be like a tent to cover them, like a Shepherd to feed them, like a Guide to lead them to fountains of living water. The tears, and sorrows, sufferings and trials of this life are gone. God wipes them all away. He comforts the saints and in his presence, there is fullness of joy forever more. That’s the hope which is yours through Christ Jesus, the lamb who was slain for you.
Do you have loved ones in heaven? Rejoice for them, because they are far better off than we are. The question is: are we on the way there ourselves? For it won’t be long now. Rest will come. The One who began a good work in us will bring it to completion. One day the bell will toll for us, and we will rejoice in the victory of death, the victory of Jesus, and all those who are left behind will rejoice for us. Death will give way to life, tears will give way to joy, sin with give way to bliss, and, dear saints, until that day, fix your eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
And now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, to life everlasting. Amen.